Monday, May 26, 2014

A Celebratory SunRock Cab

Having just returned from the Okanagan Valley and the Half Corked Half Marathon, I figured why not continue the celebrated completion of the race with a bottle from one of the highest profile members of the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association - the organization that did such a stellar job in hosting the race.

1617.  2006 Jackson-Triggs SunRock Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (VQA Okanagan Valley)

It's been awhile since I pulled the cork on a Jackson-Triggs bottle. That might be why we still have an '06 bottle hanging around. As luck would have, there was still a good bit of life to the wine - maybe even a bit more than I'm exhibiting after the past weekend's run. There was plenty of dark fruit still present - and that isn't necessarily a given with BC Cabs, even at the start of their life - and there was a good overall balance to the wine. The longevity of the wine likely has a lot to do with the fact that the wine is part of J-T's Gold Series - their highest tier of wines - and it's from the 2006 vintage which was considered a fine year for the Okanagan.

The southernmost of Jackson-Trigg's properties, the SunRock Vineyard is now fully planted to red wine varieties and this is the last of the SunRock reds to make it onto The List. Bottles of Meritage, Merlot and Shiraz were all added some time ago.

I can't but think that, if the weather for this current year keeps going at the pace we've seen so far, the 2014 vintage might be just as big and long-lasting as this '06. The vines will have another eight years of age on them and should be producing even higher quality fruit now.

As Boo is pushing to drink up some of our older bottles in the "cellar," I may just find a few more bottles of J-T's contemporaries making The List in the near future. It may well be a long time before I'm celebrating the finish of a half marathon or other long run; so, we'd best drink wine while the sun shines (or however that saying goes).

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cheers to That - A Half Corked Success

I may have a few marathons and trail runs under my belt but, admittedly, that was a dozen years and many added pounds ago. Back in my running days, though, I was always enthralled with the thought of running one of the marathons through wine country - whether that be the Napa or the Bordeaux run - but I was never able to make it happen. When the Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association introduced its Half Corked Half a few years back, I knew I was going to have to make it happen one way or another.

I didn't hear about the race in its first year until just before the start and it was too late to get involved. An injury and lack of training prevented any thought of running the next couple editions. Now, here we are at the fourth running and fortunately for the Winery Association - but unfortunately for would be runners - the Half Corked Marathon has almost become a victim of its own success. Demand for starting numbers has become something fierce. Such that, last year, all the spots were gone within a minute of them going on sale. Wanting to be as egalitarian as it could be, the Association introduced a lottery system to gain entry into this year's run.

I know about a dozen people who entered the lottery and not a single one of us saw our name picked in the initial draw. Hard to believe that you could be so disheartened by being told you can't run a half marathon, but it's true. We were all drowning our sorrows and bemoaning the training that we had under our belts. A week or so had gone by when, magically, I got the call that my name had been picked in the supplementary draw. Mr. Cool and I would be able to cruise through Okanagan vineyards after all.

As wrote in the posts leading up to race day, I'd actually picked up an injury over the last couple months. It was diagnosed as bursitis on the knee and it pretty much meant that I wasn't able to train for about 3 weeks leading up to the run and I wasn't sure that I'd even be able to complete the race. Having managed a couple 16k training runs for the first time in over a decade though and knowing how difficult it is to even get into the run, I was damned if I wasn't showing up at the start line - even if it meant that I had to walk a good part of the course or that Mr. Cool needed to carry me for a couple kilometres.

If you haven't guessed from the first couple pictures, this may still be (just shy of) a half marathon, but it is definitely operated as a fun run. A healthy proportion of the runners show up in costume - and there were some incredible outfits. Mr. Cool and I worked with the tiki room theme because it was easy to run in but I'm hard pressed to figure out how some of the participants were able to finish with their costumes in tact. The course winds through wineries - and some stunning scenery - on the Golden Mile and Black Sage Road benches but - costume or not - it isn't a course where one might look to complete a personal best time.

This part of the Okanagan is the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert that runs up the West Coast from Mexico. Therefore, the heat of the day can easily become an issue for participants. Knowing this, the organizers have wisely ensured that there are 14 water stations along the route to keep the runners hydrated.

And, since this is wine country, naturally, each of the water stations is manned by one of the 31 wineries that make up the Association. It was left to each winery to decide what to serve at their station and there was certainly a wide-ranging array of offerings - everything from Sangria at Tinhorn Creek and campfire wieners & beans to accompany Riesling at Rustico to a full spread of food and wine at Silver Sage.

I have to admit that the spray shower, set up at Stoneboat, was as welcome as any wine along the route though.

The award for best costumes went to the Red Planet team - we caught up to Marvin the Martian and crew at one of the pit stops and we marvelled at the thought of their running the whole race in their spaceship. After the race, I was gobsmacked to find out that they hadn't tried running in their ship even once before the start of the race. Yowzer!

Other favourites among the runners were the Walking Red, the various bridal parties - with or without pregnant bride, the grape bunches, the Ron Burgundy newscast team, the Dutch Brigade, and my own personal favourites: the grape-stomping Lucies. All decked out as Lucy from the infamous grape stomping episode (luckily for them, it was in the pre-fight wardrobe), there were more than a couple calls of "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!" heard over the day.

I'm happy to say that, with Mr. Cool's incredible patience and amiable pace, we managed to cross the finish line in tact and together. And, despite what I said earlier about no one being concerned about times, we managed to finish in personal bests. Admittedly, those personal bests didn't stem from stellar pacing, rather it's the fact that the course length of 18.6 km isn't a standard race length. Since this is the first time we'd run this distance, it couldn't help but be a personal best. Fancy that.

The race concludes with a festival-style tasting event with all of the Association's wineries that didn't man a water station during the race. I think it's safe to say that most of the runners sampled a whole lot more wine at the finish than they did during the race itself. Mr. Cool and I were sure to try at least one wine at each of the 14 stations but I definitely filled my coconut glass with water and ice along the course - as opposed to taking a free pour of wine to go - that is, until our final couple stations. I figured I could finish off the last so many kilometres wine in hand. I took it as a badge of honour that we crossed and toasted the finish line with some Quinta Ferreira Rosé in our tiki coconuts. It only seemed fitting for a run through wine country.

At the finish line tasting, I was reminded how I've always chuckled over the stories of women lifting their skirts for photos in front of the old Golden Beaver sign. The winery may have changed its name to its Latin translation - Castoro de Oro - but I thoroughly enjoyed telling the story to one of the blushing brides - with golden blonde locks - as he sidled up to the tasting table. Being the demure bride that he was, the skirt immediately came up. There were shorts though; so, I suppose we'll never really know if he was a natural blonde.

As the tasting wound up, surprisingly enough, Mr. Cool and I were thrilled to let the Mimster play chauffeur and take us back to the hotel for a well deserved nap.

On most days, a nap after a long run can easily signal the end of my day but, being in wine country, we decided to celebrate with dinner at Miradoro. We scored a skookum table on the balcony - from which we not only enjoyed our delicious dinners but had a great view of the first show of Tinhorn Creek's 2014 Concert Series. The Town Pants were serving up some rollicking Celtic tunes and it was a superb addition to a great day. I don't think my legs would have been up to much of the abandoned dancing that was happening below us but I did manage to tap my toes a bit to the wild rhythms.

If you look really closely at the photo below you might even see the ever-effervescent Sandra Oldfield kicking up her heels a bit to a jig or a reel. Girl's got some moves.

For a day full of wine, I haven't been adding a whack of bottles to The List. Admittedly, I did go back for multiple pours of Culmina Riesling at the finish line tasting but that didn't a bottle make. Ultimately, I couldn't miss adding a bottle from this event though and dinner provided the opportunity to do so - and add a very tasty bottle at that.

1616.  2009 Tinhorn Creek - Oldfield Series 2Bench Red (VQA Okanagan Valley)

Canadian wine scribe, Rick Van Sickle, called the '09 2Bench Red "simply the best red I have tasted from Oldfield." A Bordeaux blend of 45% merlot, 30% Cab Sauv, 22% Cab Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, it certainly hit the spot with us that evening. Dark and earthy, it got the blood coursing through my tired, old legs again. Maybe not enough to go for another run in the morning but at least enough to make it back to the hotel for a whole lot of log-sawing.

All in all, it incredible day - and weekend. The organizers and wineries deserve huge thanks and I'm not surprised to see why the run has become so popular in such a short time. I think it's safe to say that we're more than game to give the Half Corked Half another go next year. Indeed, Mr. Cool is already talking more elaborate costumes. Hopefully, I'll be up and running again by then - and be lucky enough to get starting numbers in the lottery.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Wine Worth Running For

After months of anticipation, the weekend for the ½ Corked (Half) Marathon had finally arrived. Both Mr. Cool and I were having hectic weeks at work but we managed to off-load enough of our files to sneak out of our respective offices by noon and hit the road. Luckily, the highways were clear enough that we made our way to the sunny Okanagan in time to pick up our race packages for the big run.

We were joining forces with a phalanx of runners for Primavera - the pasta-loading party thrown by the Oliver Osoyoos Wine Association - in the evening but I figured we had plenty of time to settle into our digs before we needed to leave. The Mimster had arranged for accommodation in Osoyoos and I wanted to go through the information package and show Mr. Cool all the goodies I'd rounded up for our race outfits.

And, lo and behold, foremost among the registration goodies was a bottle of event-branded wine! Unavailable, except to those participating in the run, this is one of those special bottles that speak to me as a bona fide wine geek. It was going to be fun adding this bottle to The List.

I figured Primavera would just be a buffet, eat when you like affair. Ooops. When we arrived at Church and State - the winery hosting the dinner - we saw that it was a sit down, catered affair and that we were among the last to arrive. Fortunately, we found three plum seats together and managed to  show up in time before the first course.

We'd missed a bit of a reception that featured wines from the Association's member wineries but we still managed to scoop a couple of glasses of interesting wine as everything was being finalized for dinner. Considering most of the diners were going to be running in the morning, there was an awful lot of wine being poured.

1615.  ½ Corked Blend (Okanagan Valley)

The primary wine accompanying our Joy Road dinner was the race-branded wine that we'd received in our registration package. I haven't been able to find out much information about this year's vintage of the ½ Corked Blend but I understand that Tim Martiniuk of Stoneboat Vineyards spearheaded the effort. Each of the Association's member wineries contributed wine from their cellars to produce the "rare blend of 31 premium red wines." I don't know what the make-up of the blend was but, given the who's who of member wineries and the reputation of the region for producing the biggest red wines in the province, this was no shrinking violet of a BC red.

Full of dark fruit and earthy notes, it went down easily with the Spaghetti Bolognese and Baked Pesto Pasta being served to all the prospective runners. There didn't seem to be any end in sight for either food nor wine but all good things eventually come to an end. Mr. Cool and I both determined that, with a half marathon to run in the morning, we were better off behaving ourselves and making an "early" night of it.

Besides, I was rather sure that there wasn't going to be any shortage of wine during the next day's activities.

So, we bid adieu to our dining mates - and, new drinking pals - Peaches and Coco. The two ladies just happened to be sitting next to us and we simply seemed to click - sharing more than our share of laughs through the evening. I can't say that I recall having as much fun discussing endless orgasms and the perils of dating younger men with complete strangers before.

Call me crazy, but it might have been the wine. And, with a promise to keep an eye open for them during the race, we called it a night.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sottano - An Argentine Cab

Mr. Cool and I are off in the morning to head up to Okanagan wine country for the Half Corked Half Marathon. So, it's a night for packing and a final opportunity for some last minute training - of the wine drinking variety, of course. I haven't even pretended to try and run for the last couple of weeks. I'm going to rely on the fact that this is a "fun run" and that a healthy percentage of participants will be walking for a substantial part of the race anyhow.

For those last sips of training fluids, I figured "why not go with the Sottano?" Boo and I discovered Sottano while on a road trip in Argentina and Cool and I were about to embark on another road trip - although decidedly shorter in time and distance.

1614.  2006 Sottano Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza - Argentina)

Bodega Sottano is currently seeing the fourth generation of the Sottano family involved in the growing of grapes and making of wine in Mendoza. Don Fioravante Sottano migrated from the Veneto region of Italy to the Argentine countryside in 1890; however, it's this current generation - of three brothers - that has over-seen the completion and opening of a new winery in 2005.

It was this new winery that Boo and I visited during or stay in Mendoza. I recall it as being one of our shorter visits but also one where the winery staff was ever so laid back and where they'd build a neat glass floor insert that provided a view down into the cellar from the tasting room.

Facing the draconian restrictions of bringing wine back into Canada - and much to our dismay - we only picked up one bottle of Sottano wine when we were actually in Argentina. It was not this Cab Sauv. Rather, I walked into one of the private wine shops in Vancouver a few months after our return and, shockingly, saw the bottle there. I've seen a few Sottano wines in town since that time and they are usually this "entry" level label. They also produce a Reserve label and an "icon" wine, a premium Malbec called Judas.

The home vineyards surrounding the winery are planted with primarily Malbec and Cab Sauv. So, the odds are good that we were within walking distance of the vines used in making this Cab (albeit we didn't arrive at the winery until well after this vintage had been bottled and readied for the market). I can't say that about many of the wines we drink - particularly not the ones from outside BC.

I'm not so sure that Mr. Cool and I will want our wine to be this big during the Half Corked run. Something tells me that the heat of the day might dictate something a little lighter. That doesn't mean that a whole lot of fruit and body doesn't work as a training wine though. If handling the Cab isn't causing problems now, I'm pretty sure that all this training is doing some good after all.

I say, "Bring on the race."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lammershoek - A New Look at South Africa

I still have a few training drinks to fit in before the Half Corked Half Marathon on the weekend. I may not be able to train on the road, but at least I can keep training with the glass.

1613.  2009 Lammershoek Roulette Blanc (Swartland W.O. - South Africa)

I don't know South African wines very well. We don't tend to buy many ourselves and, when we do run across them at events or parties, they're usually the mass commercial, entry level brand wines. Case in point, I didn't even recognize Swartland as a Wine of Origin appellation in South Africa - let alone know where it is on a map. Same thing with Lammershoek. I knew nothing about it when I picked up this white, along with a red blend, at a charity event silent auction and, while the purchase was a pure gamble, I figured the wines had to be a worthwhile sip as the bottles were donated by Marquis Wine Cellars - perhaps Vancouver's premier private wine merchant. If you can't trust them for a bit of an adventure, who can you trust?

Lammershoek is a family run and managed operation that produces three label ranges - an entry level, this eponymous label and a "project" label that pushes boundaries and plays with more unusual grape varieties and techniques. The winery added a new winemaker, Craig Hawkins, in 2010 and he's apparently upped the ante since his arrival. The experimental, "project" label - Cellar Foot - even has a Syrah that is aged in barrels under water. Never heard of that one before.

Hawkins wasn't with the winery during the vintage and pressing of the juice for the '09 Roulette Blanc but he did supervise the blending of the finished wine. He has an interesting production method for this wine (at least for the subsequent vintages) in that the juice is pressed directly into large (300L and 600L), old oak barrels and aged for 12 months on its lees (spent yeast cells) and then blended and placed in a 9500L concrete tank where it is aged for another 5 months on lees before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. The finished wine sees Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Clariette Blanche combined for a rich mouthfeel that goes more for minerality and spice than for fruit - quite different from most of the whites we find back home in BC. It was definitely big enough for a pork roast - although I think I'd want to drink it more with food than just by itself for a cocktail sip.

The grapes are farmed organically on dry land (no irrigation) from well established vines and that likely adds an even bigger element to the mouthfeel on the wine.  The Chenin vines are between 45 and 50 years old, the Chardonnay and Viognier around 30 and even the newest Clairett Blanche vines are 15 years old.

A definite change of pace for my wine glass. I'll be interested to see what the red is like.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hard Core Training

The 4th Annual Half Corked Half Marathon is coming up this weekend and I luckily scored a double entry into the race. Patterned after the full marathons in Médoc (Bordeaux) and Napa, the Half Corked Half sees participants run a course through wine country in the Southern Okanagan - and, probably more to the point - that offers up a dozen or so water stations at various wineries and strategic spots along the route. If you haven't already guessed, the folks running the water stations turned that water into wine tastings and bites of food (along with the water, of course).

Problem is that the race has become so popular in its brief existence that the race organizers, the Oliver Osoyoos Wine Association, needed to introduce a lottery system to select its participants. Spots in the 2013 race were in such demand that all the spots were taken within a minute of them being offered.

Despite knowing that you'd have to run 18.6 km - likely in costume while sipping away - this is one difficult race to get into. I knew about a dozen folks that had entered the lottery and I'm the only one that got in - and even that was on the second round draw to fill empty spots.

Building my running distance back up to acceptable distances had been going along nicely but about six weeks or so ago, my left knee started hurting. At first, it wasn't anything that a little wine after the run couldn't overcome - until, a couple of weeks back, my race buddy, Mr. Cool, and I ran a 15km course in miserable weather, after which the knee started kicking up something fierce. Training hasn't been going well since. In fact, it hasn't been going at all.

Hoping I'd still be able to fight my way through the race, I started some physiotherapy to check things out. As luck would have it, the diagnosis was bursitis and the physio figured I could struggle my way through the race without doing much more, if any, damage. Of course, I did have to face a few chuckles when I told friends that those most vulnerable to my injury were middle-aged, overweight women. Go figure.

All this meant that I simply had to focus my training on the drinking-wine part.

In recognition of the fact that the race is just around the corner and that we'd be running along the Black Sage Bench, I thought it would be appropriate to open a bottle from one of the wineries supporting the event.

1612.  Burrowing Owl Merlot (Okanagan Valley VQA)

Burrowing Owl wines have made The List on enough occasions that I don't really need to go into news about the winery. Check out one of the other posts for more on that front.

Now that we've finished off this bottle, I see that John Schreiner, one of BC's top wine scribes, wrote in February 2012 that it was time to start drinking the '06 Burrowing Owl reds. He confirmed that he thought 2006 was "one of the strongest vintages of the decade" but he figured that they'd peaked and that they might only hold for another year or two.

I suppose we might have pushed that limit somewhat, but I'm happy to say that Boo and I both thought there was still plenty of life left to this Merlot - and I'll be quite happy to open the last two bottles that we have tucked away. Maybe that should be sooner than later though.

Now, the hope will be that I've got as much life in this tired, old frame to get through the race without Mr. Cool having to carry me too far on his back.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Montezuma's Revenge - Silly Me

I'm thinking that this post is going to be short finish - and more of a pictorial visit - to our last days in Mexico City. The primary reason is that I spent a good portion of our final two days in bed.

Silly me. Anyone and everyone who has visited or intends to visit Mexico knows not to drink the water. And, believe me, I didn't except for the filtered water at our host, Mexican Lou's, home or bottled water (after checking that the cap was intact). Regardless of all the care taken, I still got hit by a wicked round of Montezuma's Revenge. Bad enough that Boo (an ICU nurse in real life) was worried that we wouldn't be allowed to get on our scheduled flight home if my fever didn't break.

Naturally, I started feeling poorly on the one day that Lou had taken off so that he could play tour guide during the day. We were strolling through his Condesa neighbourhood - taking in all the art deco buildings and local parks - on our way to a local market when I needed to beg off on the tour and beeline home.

It was only about twenty hours later that I felt remotely well enough to get out of bed and try a bit of a last wander around the neighbourhood. Thinking back, I concluded the only thing I ate or drank that might have caused the problem was some guacamole I had while at the Teotihuacan pyramids. The "authentic" lunch we ate there featured a guacamole that was more like salsa. How else would you make a watery guacamole but with water? Perhaps it was just a little too authentic. I should have known better, but the guac did taste good.

Not that good enough to give up two days of wining and dining though.

Accordingly, we played it pretty close to home for the balance of our stay. Choosing to forego the rooftop cocktails on the local hotel hotspot, I did manage a couple shrimp and chile relleno tacos. We'd noticed this seafood taco stand/restaurant down the block from Mexican Lou's place the night we'd arrived but we kept delaying a visit as there was always a lengthy line-up. Since it was our last day in town, we realized it was now or never; so, we took our place in line. After all, it must have been darned tasty food if there's a perpetual queue. Our wait turned out to be about a half-hour but we both admitted that these were tasty tacos - especially since it was the first substantive food I'd tried in a couple of days.

We had to get up in the middle of the night to catch an ungodly 3.30 a.m. cab to the airport. So, we faced a decision of staying up all night or catching a bit of shut-eye before our wake-up call. We chose the latter - but only because I was still a bit under the weather. Really. (OK, who am I kidding? We likely would have taken the nap in any event.) So that left us one last evening - albeit a tame and shortened one - with Mexican Lou. I may have only been up to chicken soup for dinner but I was game for one last cocktail in our Mexican Manhattan enclave. It was then that I realized that I hadn't had a margarita yet. I couldn't leave Mexico without at least one margarita under my belt.

I just prayed that the ice wouldn't exacerbate the Revenge. Or the flight home.

Chalk one up for the margarita. It marked an end to our three country whirlwind tour. We might not have added a bottle of wine to The List in a couple of days but I think we did a pretty good job over these last two weeks.

Now to dry out for a bit - both from the steady diet of cocktails AND the Montezuma's Revenge.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Teotihuacán - Pyramids of the Sun and Moon

Our visit to Mexico City was different from most vacations in that we didn't really have a game plan - not even a list of places that we wanted to definitely visit - except for ensuring that we took in the old ruins and pyramids outside the city. With our bud, Mexican Lou's, assistance we figured out our timing and a tour and this was the day. 

As is wont with taking a group tour, there were a few stops along the way - even if you were really only interested in the main event. The old Aztec site, Tlatelolco, and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas - right in Mexico City - was our first stop. A quick history lesson, some Mexican tour guide humour and a church built on the ruins. Not exactly a tour highlight. 

Next up was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe - the most visited Marian shrine in the world (shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary). I knew this was one of our scheduled stops and it didn't really appeal much to me beforehand; however, I will admit that the church (churches), the plaza and the gorgeous gardens and old chapels on the hill of Tepeyac were well worth the visit and were both quite interesting and stunning. I was told that the surrounding plaza is filled with countless folks during special occasion masses - despite the fact that the Basilica itself can seat 10,000, with the second floor and atriums bringing that total to 50,000. I couldn't find confirmation in any materials but the figure of a million+ on the plaza sticks in my mind as being possible. Blows the mind.

The iconic picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe is seen everywhere in Mexico City; so, it was quite impressive to see the original tilma (peasant's cloak) hanging in the Basilica. Even more impressive, however, were the old basilica nearby - showing its definitive slant from the shifting lands beneath the church - and the simple chapel that sits atop the gorgeous gardens on the hill of Tepeyac - where legend has it that, in 1531, Our lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, an Indian peasant, and bade him to see that a church be built on the site in her honour. A couple of miracles later and Mexico's patron saint was well on her way.

I definitely think a picnic - with a little sacramental wine - would definitely be a worthwhile excursion. It wasn't in the cards for today though.

Teotihuacán - and its Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and Avenue of the Dead - was the real goal of the day. Having visited the Mayan city of Copán many years back and visited, more recently, the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Machu Picchu with Boo, you might think that I have a bit of a jones for these windows into past civilizations. You'd be right.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, Teotihuacán is found approximately 50 kilometres outside of Mexico City and it should be no surprise that it is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. In its heyday - between 100 BC and 550 AD - the city's population was estimated at 125,000 or more and it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and the largest in the Americas.

Just don't forget to liberally apply the sunscreen, bring water and be prepared to climb. The accompanying picture gives a good representation of the steepness of the Sun Pyramid and, thankfully, my propensity to experience vertigo was well-behaved today. No doubt, the chain handrail in the middle of the primary staircase acted as a bit of security blanket.

I was equally thankful that I didn't have to make my way down the pyramid on my butt - but ever so glad to have climbed the pyramid in the first place. Plus, that effort was definitely worthy of some well-earned cocktail action upon our return to Mexican Lou's.

An "authentic" Mexican lunch was part of our tour but, for the evening, Lou had arranged for dinner at Azul Condesa - one of the trendier restaurants in his already trendy neighbourhood. The restaurant is operated by Mexican celebrity chef, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, who wrote the book on Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mexican Gastronomy - and I mean literally wrote the book.

Azul Condesa is known for its authentic, regional cuisine and, each month, its menu is celebrates a different theme. Contemporary Yucatan cuisine was the feature with this month's festival menu. I wouldn't know the difference between a Yucatan dish, a Oaxacan plate or something else altogether but we'd mentioned that we hoped to see what a higher end Mexican restaurant would be like. When presented with a menu that meant virtually nothing to me, Boo and I simply took some tips from Mexican Lou and sampled soup, shrimp and pork. Oh, and a house specialty: the guacamole with chapulines. That would be the grasshoppers that add a little crunchy note to the guac.

1578.  2011 Cuatro Niñas - Cosecha (Valle de Guadalupe - Mexico)

If making my way through the menu was a tad difficult, trying to figure out a wine to order was beyond hope. Unfortunately, neither our waiter nor the sommelier knew more than bare bones English; so, Lou tried to translate the waitstaff's comments on the forty odd Mexican reds that were available on the wine list. We ultimately went with "Four Girls" Cosecha. When we were told that this was a blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo, I remembered back to having enjoyed a Mexican Nebbiolo (L.A. Cetto) at the Vancouver International Wine Festival some years back and thought this might be worth a go.

The wine was big - and enjoyable - although I'll admit it went better with the meat dishes than it did with the lighter fare. Maybe that's why drinking cervezas with dinner is more common than wine around here. Par for the course with the Mexican wines we tried on the trip, I couldn't find any online information about the winery or the wine after the fact. Alberto Rubio is apparently the winemaker and the one reference I found about him briefly stated that he's yet another up and coming, young winemaker in Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe.

I figure it's better to have tried these local wines and still know nothing about them than to not have even tried them. I'll just have to keep my eyes and ears open for future opportunities and maybe, by then, I'll know a little Spanish or, more likely, the person introducing the wine will know English.

All considered though, it was a day for the ages. Unexpected religious treats. Historical wonders. And fine dining. In my book, that's what vacations are supposed to be all about.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monumental Markets, Beasts and Cathedrals

Following yesterday's misdirections and overwhelming pounding of the pavement, our feet dictated that our tour of La Ciudad's Historic District needed a little more restraint, plenty of rest time and a cab ride home. Naturally, we'd requested some suggested highlights from Lou - especially since he works right in the midst of the Centro Histórico.  As with yesterday's visit to the Museum of Anthropology, there was more than enough in the district to keep us occupied for days. We, therefore, limited ourselves to three target locations.

First up was La Merced Market - the largest traditional retail market in the city. It turns out we only visited one of the buildings that constitute the market but, even still, we saw an incredible assortment of fruits, vegetables, spices, fish, meat, poultry and prepared foods. What was a bit of a shock to our more sanitized outlook on markets was how we could see the butchers skinning the goats, women plucking the chickens and baby pigs being delivered by the barrel.

I could definitely see La Merced as being a chef's delight - although it would take me some time to incorporate unfamiliar ingredients like huitlacoche (black corn fungus), mealy worms or these tiny crustaceans that looked like crawfish but were the size of your thumbnail. That doesn't even consider all the different peppers, mushrooms or types of fish that I didn't recognize.

I was sorely tempted to buy a small container of passionfruit pulp not to mention any number of other treats - but we limited ourselves to a couple of sandwiches for a picnic lunch. We realized that we'd not only have no opportunity to utilize all these culinary treasures but that we were going to be wandering around in the sun for hours to come.

Next up was the Museo de Arte Popular - the institution dedicated to the preservation of Mexican crafts and folk art. We immediately knew this would be our cup of tea when we were greeted on the street by some monumental alebrijes - oversized fantastical creatures that incorporate various parts of real life animals with mythical or imaginary beasts. Starting in 2007, the Museum sponsors an annual parade of the larger-than-life creatures. Less than a decade in existence, the parade already draws more than 100 entries and two million spectators.

The alebrijes alone would have been enough to captivate me but the museum exhibits also included incredible dioramas of Mexican historical events that were re-enacted by Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures, costumes, religious items, masks and every day items. In retrospect, it boggles my mind that the museum has only been around since 2006. Just like at the Museum of Anthropology, the range of the exhibits overwhelmed the senses and there was just too much to take in over one short visit.

Leaving the museum, I'd hoped to find a shop where I could buy a bottle of wine for our picnic but that wasn't in the cards. There it was, a perfect opportunity to add a bottle to The List - squandered. After our wine-less lunch, we carried on through the Historic District.

While the entire Centro Histórico has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our final stop for the day was the Zócalo - the city's main plaza and site for popular cultural events and political protests alike - and the Metropolitan Cathedral found at one end of the plaza. The Zócalo was fenced off today for some reason but the largest cathedral in the Americas was open for the masses - and it's quite the sight, even for a non-Catholic guy like me.

Construction of the Cathedral started shortly after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the conquistadors chose the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor to solemnize their victory. The original church was expanded upon, built around and ultimately replaced as the Cathedral was built in sections from 1573 to 1813. The Cathedral has suffered much damage over the years - mostly due to the fact that its foundations are threatened by the soft clay soil the Cathedral was built upon. Most of Mexico City is built on an old lakebed and as the city's enormous population continues to draw water and lower the underlying waterbed, the city in general and this site in particular is prone to uneven shifting - to the extent that the cathedral was added to the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. While reconstruction efforts have helped stabilize the foundations and the Cathedral is no longer on the endangered sites list, you can still see irregular angles and slopes inside that highlight the Cathedral's vulnerability.

Following a short respite in the pews to rest our weary feet, it was time to make our way back to Mexican Lou's.  This time we made no mistake about finding our way home. We simply took a cab.

1576.  2010 Tomero Torrontés (Valle de Cafayate - Salta - Argentina)

Having missed out on wine with our picnic, we immediately popped the cork on a bottle that just happened to be cooling in the fridge back home. I'd grabbed the Tomero the other night for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think Mexican wines are known more for the reds and secondly, the Tomero brand is    a second label for Vistalba - one of Boo's and my favourite Argentine wineries - and we wouldn't normally see this wine back home.

I won't say much about Tomero wines because I've written more effusively about Tomero, Vistalba and the Pulenta family in other posts. As mentioned though, the Torrontés isn't a route we regularly take at home. Perhaps Argentina's signature white variety, these grapes are grown, not in the familiar Mendoza region, but in the more northern Salta district. With vineyards being planted at some of the highest altitudes seen for grapes, varietal Torrontés can be somewhat deceiving. Its nose can be reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but its body is bigger and it can be drier on the palate with more tropical than tree fruit. The key to the wine's success is that the higher altitudes bring cooler temperatures in the evening, helping to maintain the grapes acidity because the Argentine days get hot in Salta. The region is similar in latitude to Baja California and you know there's going to be plenty of daytime heat as Salta is about as close to the Equator as quality wine regions get.

We thought we better be nice and leave some of the Torrontés for Mexican Lou especially since we peaked and knew that we had some chicken in store for our dinner. Lou is a lucky guy in that his mom is old school and still drops by his place weekly to conjure up a batch of her home cooking for him. She kept up that tradition - even though he had guests - and we were the beneficiaries. We'd told Lou that we were hoping to try as much local and authentic Mexican food as we could while we were here. You can't get much more authentic than a mom's home cooking.

The Torrontés quickly disappeared and it was time to open another bottle - of Mexican wine.
1577.  2009 Bodegas de Santo Tomás Syrah (Valle de Santo Tomás - Mexico)

Founded in 1888, Bodegas de Santo Tomás is Baja's oldest winery and one of the largest in the country. While the winery does have a website, unfortunately for me, it's all in Spanish. I found a few other articles that mentioned the winery and region and Wine Enthusiast described Santo Tomás' internationally trained winemaker, Hugo D'Acosta, as "the most significant evolution in Mexican wine since Spaniards first planted vineyards at the Santo Tomás mission in 1791." D'Acosta apparently started the La Escuelita wine school and custom crush facility in 2004 and his students have started more than a dozen small wineries in Mexico. La Escuelita just happened to be the school that Thorsten Schocke, of Bodega de la Resistance, attended. His Tolochos was the wine we enjoyed the other evening.

Despite a long history, Mexican winemaking is still learning the nuances of modern tastes, production and marketing but Santo Tomás is acknowledged as being in the forefront of the movement and it appears that the majority of premium wine is being made in Baja Mexico. There are three main valleys for wine growing in Baja: Valle de Guadelupe, San Vincente and the eponymous Santo Tomás. Santo Tomás, the winery, grows grapes in all three valleys, allowing it to take advantage of the different microclimates and soils.

I couldn't find any specific information about this Syrah but we were pleasantly surprised. Restrained in its expression of fruit and integration of ripeness, tannin and acidity. There'd be no confusing it with an Okanagan or old school Rhône Syrah but it it could certainly match up against many an Aussie or Californian Shiraz.

Once the Syrah was put to rest, we decided to put ourselves to bed. We'd arranged to go on a tour out to the Teotihuacán pyramids in the morning and we needed to be ready for the bus by 7 a.m. - a rather early start for a vacation, I'd say. There wasn't likely to be any wine on the tour but we thought we could manage.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dos Cervezas Por Favor

I believe this post on our first full day in Mexico City is going to be more of a photo essay than commentary - especially since there are no wines to add to The List this time around. Boo and simply set off on foot to experience the city and take in a museum or two since Mexican Lou told us that his home was quite close to many of the major sights.

We initially made our way up to Paseo de la Reforma - a wide avenue, modelled after the great avenues of Europe, that cuts diagonally across the capital. It is the home to many of the city's most notable monuments - including the Angel of Independence and Monument to the Revolution. It is also lined with jacaranda after jacaranda tree. We were thrilled to find that the trees were still in the final stages of full bloom as the brilliant purple flowers are among our favourites to see but the trees aren't able to grow at home in Vancouver. Buenos Aries is awash in jacaranda as well but we'd missed their flowering season by a couple of weeks when we visited a few years back. Jacaranda in bloom could be a destination all on their own - much like visiting Washington D.C. during cherry blossom season.

Reforma leads straight into Chapultepec Park - one of the world's great urban parks - and Lou recommended it as his favourite place for a jog. Neither Boo nor I was game for the running part but the fact that many of the city's top museums are located in the park was a definite draw.

Although it hadn't been on our radar at all, Lou heartily suggested that we climb to the top of Chapultepec hill in the park to take in the panoramic view of the city. A bit of a hike, I heard Boo grumbling "God must hate me" on more than a couple of occasions. Mind you, that statement has pretty much become de rigeur for him if he encounters more than a dozen stairs. So, I'd have been surprised if he hadn't exclaimed his issues with the climb.

Little did we realize that the city view came with castle and museum. Chapultepec Castle was built in 18th Century as a summer retreat for ruling Spanish viceroys. It later became the residence of for Mexican heads of state, including Emperor Maximilian, following the country's independence. The castle is now part of the Museum of History and the hill climb even seemed worth it to Boo after we'd toured around a bit.

I think we could easily have said that we'd put in a full day already but our real goal was to make it to the Museum of Anthropology - considered one of the greatest archeological museums in the world. Its 25 exhibit halls are devoted to major pre-Hispanic civilizations in Mexico, including Aztec, Maya, and Toltec and is awe-inspiring. We barely scratched the surface of the offerings available. Not that it's a fact that needs to be pointed out but, if you didn't already know, the Museum makes it abundantly clear that the past civilizations of these lands were advanced and interesting beyond the imagination. I completely understand why guide books say that you really need to allow two to three days to do the museum justice.

Our feet were passing their own judgment on the day, however, and we decided to take a brief wander through one of the very fashionable neighbourhoods and make our way back to Lou's. We hadn't counted on getting lost on the way home though. I made a miscalculation on a route and sadly learned that guide books don't always warn you about not being able to get across freeways and that you can't always get there from here.

It didn't help that none of the streets in Lou's neighbourhood are on a straight grid either - they all curve here and there. Makes for a marvellous feel to the area but it was a nightmare for these tourists - especially as it was getting dark and we couldn't really understand any of the directions we were being given by any of the locals nice enough to try and help us.

We readily agreed that our circumstances - and lack of ability to simply find our way home - didn't bode well for our ever winning The Amazing Race. We were only dealing in Spanish - and Boo can speak basic Spanish. Imagine our having to cope in Chinese or Arabic.

It should come as no surprise that we both needed a drink as soon as we finally made it home. That drink was a martini, however, and I was too spent to even think about a photo since it was never making it to the wine blog anyhow.

When Mexican Lou got home, we commiserated over our sore feet and celebrated the excitement that is Mexico City. It was then on to tacos and cervezas - Negra Modela and Montejo to be exact. We asked Lou to take us to a tasty, simple, authentic taco joint in the hood. He came through in spades. We just kept letting him order, saying that someone needs to come to Vancouver and open a restaurant like this in Vancouver.

If only we'd fit some wine into the day - other than our whining about sore feet and getting lost.